BOSTON (AP) — The longtime chairman of a Massachusetts tribe and an architecture firm owner have been charged in a bribery scheme involving the tribe’s plans to build a resort casino, federal prosecutors said Friday.
Cedric Cromwell is accused of using his position as chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to extort tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from David DeQuattro, a 54-year-old Warwick, Rhode Island, resident who owns an architecture-and-design company.
Both pleaded not guilty to bribery charges during a videoconference Friday. Cromwell, a 55-year-old Attleboro resident, also pleaded not guilty to extortion charges. A Boston federal court judge released them on $25,000 in unsecured bond until their next court date.
Between 2014 and 2017, prosecutors said DeQuattro provided Cromwell with payments and other benefits valued at nearly $60,000 in exchange for nearly $5 million in construction contracts with the tribe.
They said Cromwell spent all of the money on personal expenses, including payments to his mistress. DeQuattro also provided Cromwell a home gym system and paid for a weekend stay at a Boston hotel for Cromwell’s birthday, according to prosecutors.
“Many American Indians face a host of difficult financial and social issues,” U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, whose office is prosecuting the case, said in a statement. “They require — and deserve — real leadership. But it appears that Cromwell’s priority was not to serve his people, but to line his own pockets.”
Cromwell’s lawyer Timothy Flaherty said in statement that his client denies the allegations.
“He is a man of principle, a man of faith, and he is a transformational leader,” Flaherty said.
The tribe’s council voted unanimously to remove Cromwell as chair during an emergency meeting later Friday.
“We take the charges brought against Cedric Cromwell very seriously,” Jessie Baird, the council’s vice chair, said in a statement. “The Tribe’s focus remains on ensuring that the our land remains in trust and supporting our tribal sovereignty.”
The Cape Cod-based tribe traces its ancestry to the Native Americans who shared a fall harvest meal with the Pilgrims in 1621. It gained federal recognition in 2007 and had more than 300 acres placed into federal trust and declared its sovereign reservation in 2016 under then-President Barack Obama’s administration.
The tribe swiftly broke ground on its planned, $1 billion First Light casino in Taunton, a city south of Boston, along with Genting Group, a major Malaysia-based casino developer.
But the project was halted amid a series of legal and political setbacks, including efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to undue the tribe’s Obama-era land designations.
Earlier this year, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs said it would move to rescind the tribe’s 300-acre reservation designation and remove the land from federal trust.
A federal judge in June halted the move and ordered the Interior Department to review the matter and issue new findings. The agency has appealed.
Trump has also opposed legislation passed in the Democrat-led House to protect the tribe’s reservation, regardless of what the courts decide. He’s dismissed it as a “special-interest casino bill.”
The tribe and others across the country have complained the administration’s maneuvers set a dangerous precedent in stripping a tribe of its federally protected lands.